“[…] the true complexity of reading is admitted. The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgement upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall sleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases; we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe.”
—Virginia Woolf, ‘How Should One Read a Book?’, The Second Common Reader, p.258
This weekend I read Renee Gladman’s Morelia, a short book, in an hour, followed by a couple of hours in the garden in contemplation. This ‘sitting with’ a book one has finished is perhaps the finest part of reading. I reread and think often of Woolf’s encouragement to attend properly to what we read. Slow reading needn’t always mean to read slowly, but to reread, reflect and allow a book to return as a thing rather than a resource.
“Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour — landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot [sic] in the post office! With one’s hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse. Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard. . . .”
“But how to describe a world seen without a self? There are no words. Blue, red — even they distract, even they hide with thickness instead of letting the light through. How describe or say anything in articulate words again? — save that it fades, save that it undergoes gradual transformation, becomes, even in the course of one short walk, habitual — this scene also. Blindness returns as one moves and one leaf repeats another. Loveliness returns as one looks with all its train of phantom phrases. One breathes in and out substantial breath; down in the valley the train draws across the fields lop-eared with smoke.
But for a moment I had sat on the turf somewhere high above the flow of the sea and the sounds of the woods, had seen the house, the garden, and the waves breaking. The old nurse who turns the pages of the picture-book had stopped and had said, ‘Look. This is the truth.’”
[Firmly reinstated as my favourite of VW’s novels. But I like to imagine the one that was never written: “On May 26, 1924, Virginia Woolf notes in her journal: ‘My thoughts are completely occupied by The Hours‘”. — Henri Lefebvre, The Missing Pieces.]
This is what she does so well: “what is the use of painfully elaborating these consecutive sentences when what one needs is nothing consecutive but a bark, a groan?” Conventional narratives fail to give any genuine sense of life itself, with its flow of associations, impressions, memories, its subliminal, discordant orchestration that pierces our moment to moment existence. Woolf gets close in The Waves, maybe the closest of any writer to capturing the intersection of sensation, thought and other people. Imposing artificially coherent structure is part of our myth-making, our fear of apparent chaos. In place of complexity and mutation, we seek simplification and artificial beauty. “How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground!”
Part of the lie of rational narrative is this falsified sense of identity. As Bernard argues in The Waves, he is expected to be a “certain kind of man”, but of course there are “many Bernards . . . I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.”
Give me rupture, fragmentation, allow me to perform in the sense that I use my own interpretive failure to finish making a story, to fully appreciate the “mystery of things”.
I listened also to the Foucault episodes of Philosophize This! The third (episode 123) is very good, especially in its discussion of Bentham’s panopticon as a model for how we internalize constant surveillance. This seems also true of popular fiction with its apparent unique access to character’s private thoughts and lives, a superior position that enables us to identify with the watcher or narrator. Woolf denies her reader this superiority by not offering readers this higher perspective.
I reread Mrs. Dalloway, conventionally Mrs Dalloway, without the full stop, on the front cover in England, but with on the title pages and thereafter. It is, I believe, the first book I read by Woolf. I’ve never forgotten the passage in which one first meets Miss Kilman, her colossal egotism and self righteousness, her monstrous libido sublimated into religious fanaticism. It is extraordinary writing and testament to Woolf’s capacity for capturing character with a few lines.
When I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time, I took copies of the book to press into the hands of a few friends. Only one of them had read it. One other was to become, just like me, an unconditional “Woolfian”. It was the Kilman passages that I marked and then read to them, savouring that moment when Miss Kilman and Clarissa ‘assess each other’s bodies in class terms’. Remarkable, yes, but also undeniably cruel as Woolf can be to her minor, symbolic characters.
On a return flight from Glasgow today I read Elaine Showalter’s introduction to a new paperback edition of Mrs Dalloway. I mustn’t have read Woolf’s famous essay called Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, for I hadn’t come across the sentences of Woolf that she quotes.
Showalter writes, “Woolf warned, readers would have to get used to ‘a season of fragments or failures.’ They would have to be patient, to tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure.’ But their patience would be rewarded, for, she predicted, ‘we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature.'” It was surely true of Woolf’s writing, but turned out to be a spasm not an age. Soon enough we would return, not that we truly left, to the age of the nineteenth century novel, now mostly packaged in shorter and shorter bites for the consumption of weary workers seeking solace.
At home I came across another quote that made its mark. In the third of his journals, Mircea Eliade cites Paul Tillich as saying: “At whatever age one loses one’s mother, one remains an orphan forever. This is not the case with the death of the father.” I know from Tillich’s biography that he repressed his mother’s death and did not speak of her to anyone. My father refused to talk of my mother after her death, and I was, I think, ten or eleven years of age before a kindly aunt first raised the subject. Tillich biographers, Wilhelm and Marion Pauck wrote, “He sought her forever after in every Demeter or Persephone he pursued.”